Around the World (May 18, 2013)

Italy: New President & New Government

After  an undecided election and two months of uncertainty (chronicled here and here) about the options available for forming a government and electing a new head of state, the main Italian parties agreed on re-electing 87-years old Giorgio Napolitano as President of the Italian Republic, and on forming a kind of “grand coalition” in support of a new government. Napolitano’s re-election, albeit contrary to his original intentions, of not standing for re-election, paved the way for reaching the more important goal, of forming a new and stable government. Why was Napolitano’s election conducing to the formation of a government?

On the one hand, he is a personality amenable to both major parties (center-left Democrats and center-right People of Liberty), and thus “finding” a compromise candidate was actually possible; although the Democrats could have pushed through a candidate without Berlusconi’s support, that would have doomed any chances of forming a government. It took five voting sessions, in the special electoral assembly, to return to the choice of the outgoing President; along this tortuous process, the center-left experienced significant turmoil, including a change in leadership (Bersani resigning), and that also contributed to making an agreement with the center-right possible. Finally – but just as importantly – at the swearing-in ceremony Giorgio Napolitano gave a powerful, emotional speech (video), in which he chastised with harsh words the entire Italian political elite; according to many, this was a catalyst that gave a significant impetus to the said elite, to reach a compromise in the interest of the country. The arrangement they reached is a coalition government in which both the center left, the center right, as well as Monti’s alliance would participate, thus giving it (at least on paper) the broad parliamentary support needed in order to attempt the serious economic, social and political reforms that Italy needs (composition of the cabinet). The new center-left premier, Enrico Letta, is a sober and moderate figure, one that is able to inspire trust, even beyond the political fault-lines. The only political force remaining outside these arrangements, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement, whose representation in Parliament and anti-political stance had an important role to play in the recent impasse, has expressed its opposition both to Napolitano’s re-election and to Letta’s coalition government.

Serbia and Kosovo Reach An Agreement

On April 19, the leaders of Serbia and of Kosovo have reached an important EU-brokered agreement addressing the status of the four ethnic Serb municipalities in the north of Kosovo (North Mitrovica, Zvečan, Zubin Potok and Leposavić). Although “parts of” Kosovo, these municipalities have been under a sort of self rule, which actually translated into a weak rule of law and the flourishing of underground, even criminal economic activities, and a survival of the region only due to significant financial support from Serbia. Under the new agreement, however, this region will form one unit that will become an integral part of Kosovo, subject to its laws and institutions, while retaining  some autonomous decision-making powers in the realm of  economic development, education, healthcare and town planning, and populating its judiciary and police forces with local people. The consequences of the agreement, although interpreted differently by the two sides, are far reaching; for Serbia, it opens the doors for starting the negotiations for joining the EU; for Kosovo, it signifies an implicit affirmation by Serbia of Kosovo’s independent status; for the EU and its foreign minister (i.e. High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy), Katherine Ashton, this is a significant success, and a step toward solving the long-term NATO and EU involvement in the region. It also demonstrates the continued attractiveness (and “soft power”) of the “EU carrot” – of the promise of integration into the economic, social and legal structures of the Union; in many ways, this is another instantiation of the accomplishment of the original objectives of the EU: to become a space of peace and prosperity. The signing of the agreement was certainly helped by the fact that the leaders involved have well-established nationalist credentials among their people: Serbia’s prime minister, Ivica Dačić, was at one time Slobodan Milosevic’s spokesman; the deputy prime minister, Aleksandar Vučić, used to be an extremist nationalist; Kosovo’s prime minister, Hashim Thaçi,  is a former guerrilla leader. The text of the agreement was approved with large majorities by both parliaments: by the Kosovo Assembly on April 22, and by the Serbian National Assembly on April 26. The only obstacle remaining – and quite a significant one – is the actual implementation of the agreement, given that the leaders and population of the said municipalities remain opposed to it; however, given that Serbia is the de facto financier of these municipalities, there are few options for them but to accept the deal.

The Obama Administration in Crisis

These weeks the Barack Obama-led executive is passing through what is probably its most difficult period, following revelations of abusive behavior by its tax institution, a continued lack of clarity about what happened in Benghazi, Libya last year, and the discovery of the fact that its Justice Department has been conducting wide-ranging investigations of journalists’ activities. The Internal Revenue Service-related scandal has to do with its targeting of “conservative” groups, while evaluating their tax-exempt status, i.e. in the course of deciding if they engage in political activities, which would make them taxable entities. The code words that the IRS used in selecting the targeted groups (such as “Patriots”, “Bill of Rights”), the sheer intrusiveness of the inquiries, and the slow response time of the agency, give the impression of a politically motivated activity by an institution of the state that has no role to play in politics. The events of September 11, 2012 in Benghazi have been used by the Republicans from the start, to attack the executive, accusing it of either being grossly incompetent, or of intentionally misleading the public and the Congress. The way in which the various actors in the administration have vacillated in their reactions to and description of the events, and the overall reluctance to provide, even nine months later, a transparent accounts of who did what, why, and under whose orders, did not help put an end to those accusations. Finally,  the DOJ revealed recently that it has secretly (albeit legally) obtained over two months of phone records belonging to 20 telephone lines assigned to the Associated Press; in addition, the Washington Post recently described the extensive investigation of a Fox News journalist’s interactions with a government official, in relation to some leaked information. These recent revelations cement the image (that has been developing for a while) of a White House that is probable the most aggressive administration in documented history, in terms of aggressively fighting and pursuing such so-called “leaks”.

The intersection of all these “scandals” looks very much like a “perfect storm”, from the perspective of Barack Obama’s political adversaries, but the negative reaction extends beyond party lines.  A US president’s political power is mostly based on influence, and this is why presidents entering the last two years of their mandate are called “lame ducks” – because there is little public support, positive image, or positions n government that they can transaction, in exchange for support from members of the Congress or at state level. Barack Obama has started his second and last term determined to push through with a very ambitious agenda, including some political unicorns like immigration reform, gun-control legislation, entering the implementation phase of the new health care law etc. Fresh from a solid elections victory, he looked to be in the best position to attempt this, because of the public’s demonstrated support, and a lack of direction,  ambition or legitimacy on the part of the Republican Party. Right now, however, only six months later, the Republicans seem newly energized, trying to craft a narrative that would tie together all these scandals, in the hope of forcing this administration to turn the corner into the “lame duck” stage sooner than anyone would have expected (with added benefits for the Congressional elections of 2014).  How the Obama administration will fare through these scandals will be crucial, therefore, in terms of its objectives, and of the mark that the President wants to leave in US history (a central concern of all presidents). Until now, the White House has been taking a different strategy, regarding each of these scandals: reacting quickly and strongly against IRS’s abuses; taking the line that the DOJ is simply doing its duty, with regards to leaks affecting national security; and characterizing GOP’s attacks on the administration, in relation to Benghazi, as over-inflated political rhetoric. The success of these White House defense strategies, and the degree to which the President will maintain the public’s support, will also depend on how he will manage his relationships with the Democratic members of Congress (a relationship that has never been too simple or too close) and with a press corps that until now has been largely favorable (and even cooperating).

Syria: Where Is the “Red Line”?

In March of this year several reports signaled the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria, in the northern town of Khan al-Assal, near Aleppo. This was followed by other incidents with allegations of chemical attacks, and by statements suggesting that this might not be the first time when such weapons have been used. Syria is known to have a large stash of chemical weapons, and the fear was always that the government might actually deploy them against the rebel forces. The matters are complicated by contradictory accusations, with the Syrian government and some international observers stating that it was the rebel forces who might have used chemical components, while most international actors (US, France, Britain, Israel) and the  Free Syrian Army (FSA) blame it squarely on the Syrian regime, saying that only they would possess the capacity and the will to do so.  It is also not clear if these were actual chemical weapons, like the (nerve gas) sarin, which the regime possesses and might have used before, or simply chlorine, which is a readily available cleaning supply, and thus accessible to any of the forces engaged in the conflict.  The reports have however put the international actors, and especially the US, in a difficult position, as the use of chemical weapons has been qualified a while ago as a “red line” that, once crossed, would necessitate a more direct intervention on behalf of the population.  It is also clear that the “red line” expression was used originally in reference to the possibility of large scale use of chemical weapons, which would have devastating consequences – and not about local incidents. However, if large scale is an issue, then one has to wonder what actually constitutes a “red line”, given that, since the beginning of the conflict, more than 90,000 people have lost their lives, and more than one million have become refugees (summary). The ongoing vicious war of the Assad regime on the Syrian population, and the messy civil war that is being waged today at the cost of thousands of innocent victims, might have already crossed that “red line.” Yet it is not simple to see through the various, more or less organized groups battling the regime; as always in a mass uprising, their motivations, goals and composition vary with the place, the moment, and the group in question.  It is clear however that there are institutionalized opposition structures, such as the FSA and the Syrian National Coalition, which have become “official” partners of the international actors on behalf of the “rebels”, and who could be used more actively in the effort of ending the ongoing bloodshed. Meanwhile, Syrian society is being torn apart, probably with long term consequences (unsurprisingly similar to post-war Iraq); and those who bear the brunt of the conflict are, as always, the non-involved civilians and the minorities (eg. the Christians).

In Brief

According to the authorities, Hugo Chavez’s former right-hand, Nicolás Maduro, narrowly won the April 14 presidential elections in Venezuela, which were called after the former president’s death. The elections were followed by violent street clashes, amid heavy contestation of the results by the supporters of the opposition and of its presidential candidate,  Henrique Capriles – and amid a continued and vertiginous worsening of the economic situation.

On May 10, for the first time in history a former ruler of a country was condemned for genocide by a court from his own country. The trial of Efrain Rios Montt, the ex-military dictator who ruled Guatemala during a portion of its 36-years long civil war, concluded by finding him guilty of taking part in a genocide against the native Ixil Mayan population, and condemning him to 80 years in prison.

One of the defining political leaders of the second half of the twentieth century, Britain’s Margaret Thatcher, passed away on April 8. As a Prime Minister she left behind a complex legacy, combining  political centralization with an emphasis on the free market and on individualism, and an aggressive foreign policy with a certain insularism. Illustrating the mark that her career left on the public consciousness, the funerals (video) were attended by notable figures from all aspects of public life, from politics to economy and entertainment.

Representatives of the Ladies in White Cuban opposition group finally managed to travel to collect the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought awarded them by the European Parliament in 2005. The Ladies in White is  a Church-based group of wives and relatives of people jailed for political reasons in Cuba.

The new Monarch of The Netherlands, Willem Alexander, was enthroned on April 30 (video). He takes over as head of state after his mother’s, Queen Beatrix’s resignation earlier this year. (An interesting detail: the pop song commissioned to celebrate this event was met with widespread criticism and derision; see video.)

In April, at a distance of just a few days, different parts of Iran were rocked by powerful earthquakes (of 6.3 and 7.8 magnitudes on the Richter scale, respectively).  Iran sits on a major tectonic fault line, and its inner regions have been historically the victims of very strong earthquakes, such as the 2003 one in the Bam region, which resulted in over 25,000 deaths.

What Do Iranians Want?

[Press CC for English subtitles.]

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